[trigger warning, discussion of trauma]
This is an issue that’s been on my mind since I bumped into a conversation about anti sex positive feminism. Is there a way to build a sex positive space that at least has the potential to feel welcoming and safe for survivors of trauma?
I’ve heard many survivors talk about feeling excluded, at best, and retraumatized, at worst, by events or spaces that bill themselves as sex positive, despite the fact that, in principle, sex positivity intentionally carves out space for survivorship. So I got to thinking about the relationship between sex positivity and trauma-informed practices, and I think there might be something valuable there.
I’ll start with Carol Queen’s excellent definition of sex positivity:
Sex-positive is a simple yet radical affirmation that we each grow our own passions on a different medium, that instead of having two or three or even half a dozen sexual orientations, we should be thinking in terms of millions. “Sex-positive” respects each of our unique sexual profiles, even as we acknowledge that some of us have been damaged by a culture that tries to eradicate sexual difference and possibility. Even so, we grow like weeds.
And she says elsewhere:
It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent. People sometimes argue against sex-positivity as too utopian and unrealistic because so many people have had terrible, negative sexual experiences, but remember that sexuality is a potentially positive element of our lives, and if someone’s experiences have been negative, why? Is it because they’ve had too little information, support, opportunities for choice? These are the cultural conditions that sex-positivity allows us to point out as curtailers of healthy, enjoyable sexual experience.
I think that sets an excellent stage for thinking about trauma-informed sex positivity. Here is the definition of “trauma informed practice” from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
Trauma-specific interventions are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma in the individual and to facilitate healing. Treatment programs generally recognize the following:
- The survivor’s need to be respected, informed, connected, and hopeful regarding their own recovery
- The interrelation between trauma and symptoms of trauma (e.g., substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety)
- The need to work in a collaborative way with survivors, family and friends of the survivor, and other human services agencies in a manner that will empower survivors and consumers
For more detail, a 2005 article titled Trauma Informed or Trauma Denied: Principles and implementation of trauma-informed services for women (PDF) outlines 10 principles of trauma-informed practice:
Recognize the impact of violence and victimization on development and coping strategies
Identify recovery from trauma as a primary goal.
Employ an empowerment model (as contrasted with, for example, the standard medical model).
Maximize a woman’s choices and control over her recovery.
Based in relational collaboration
Create an atmosphere that is respectful of survivors’ need for safety, respect, and acceptance.
Emphasize women’s strengths, highlighting adaptations over symptoms and resilience over pathology.
Minimize the possibilities of retraumatization.
Be culturally competent and understand each woman in the context of her life experiences and cultural background.
Solicit input and involve everyone in designing and evaluating services.
In general, these are guidelines for therapy, social services, or other professional practices, but I think they make a great starting point for thinking about sex positivity in the context of trauma. From my perspective as an educator, there’s a lot of overlap between sex positivity and trauma informed practice, which means it might require only tweaks, not an overhaul, to make sex positivity feel safe for survivors. Look at all the thing they have in common:
- Recognize that some of us have been injured, and make no assumptions
- Empower individuals, support universal autonomy
- Create lots of space for diversity of all kinds, recognizing all levels of oppression, from individual to systemic
- Minimize hurting people – in sex positivity, through non-judgment, access to resources, and consent
So at something like, for example, a fellatio workshop, it would be simple to shape language to be more collaborative, more empowering, and more respectful of a survivor’s needs for safety and acceptance. Here are just a few ideas:
- Announcing at the beginning that everyone has a different level of comfort and everyone has a different experience of sexuality, some of it great, some of it not-so-great, some of it terrible, and everyone is asked both to be respectful of that and to practice self-care
- Role modeling the language of consent and body acceptance
- Addressing the potential for anxiety and the stress response, and actively teaching strategies for NOTICING that response and DEALING with it
- Being thoughtful with language and jokes – I don’t mean always being serious (sex education NEEDS humor), but making sure we’re laughing at the dominant group, rather than the subordinate group
You might wonder, “Why would a person in recovery from sexual trauma go to a fellatio workshop?” but I’ve known many women for whom pleasure-oriented, woman-friendly erotic education felt like a really good strategy for tuning back in to their sensual selves. And it can be AWESOME for them. And sometimes it can just feel exclusive and awful. The difference, I think, is in how open and explicit the educator is about the fact that some folks are comfortable trying radically new things and other folks need courage to take off their clothes.
I often struggle with the awareness that people in my class or workshop or reading the blog are in very different places in their sexual development, in their intellectual attunement, and in their level of health of all kinds. Sometimes folks at the radical edge feel bored or else critical of the ways that I reject the tyranny of precision in favor of a story that people can understand and remember without needing the details. But here is a thing I have learned:
The folks at the radical edge are never harmed and very often benefit from trauma-informed practice in the classroom. In my experience, they are no less likely to be survivors, are no less likely to have been raised in an emotion dismissing culture, are no less likely to be triggered; they’re just triggered by different stuff, in different ways. They’re more likely to intellectualize their emotional response, but it’s the same basic emotional dynamic. After all, even folks who haven’t experienced sexual violence have lived in a sex negative culture that carefully taught them that they were broken.
So what does it feel like, to tune your sex positivity toward trauma informed practice? My own experience is that it feels like going slower, being gentler, softening language, emphasizing individual experience over population-level data. What it DOESN’T feel is less enthusiastic, less curious, or less wide-open to diversity.
I think there’s plenty of space for trauma awareness in sex positivity. I think that the more mindful educators (and everyone) can be about holding that space with lovingkindness, the more we can build health in individuals and in the culture. I think, at any rate, it’s an excellent place to start.